Generalized Anxiety Disorder vs. Major Depressive Disorder: How to Tell Them Apart

By Gaan Akers, LPC, NCC | December 6, 2017

symptoms of depression and anxiety

Understanding your diagnosis is an important part of getting the right treatment. Anxiety and depression are two common mental illnesses that often co-occur, meaning that many people may suffer from both disorders. In fact, while these two conditions may seem distinct, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and major depressive disorder (MDD) are a common comorbidity. Out of the individuals who suffer from depression, 45.7% of them also suffer from an anxiety disorder — often at the same time. 

There are many symptoms that overlap between Depression and Anxiety, such as irritability, restlessness, problems sleeping, and difficulties with concentrating. However, each diagnosis has its own cause and emotional and physical symptoms. The best way to confirm your condition is with a diagnosis from a mental health professional.

In This Article

Differences Between Anxiety and Depression Symptoms 

The primary difference between the diagnoses of a Major Depressive Episode and Generalized Anxiety Disorder is that a person who experiences depression usually describes their mood as sad, hopeless, feeling “down in the dumps” or “blah,” while a person who struggles with Generalized Anxiety Disorder reports feeling constantly worried and having a hard time controlling the worry. 

While it’s common to experience these types of feelings when undergoing stressful events or losses in life, when they are ongoing regardless of life situations, they can be symptoms of underlying depression and anxiety.

Both the physical and mental symptoms of depression and anxiety can also help us differentiate between the diagnoses.

Physical symptoms of depression can include:

  • Flat affect – lack of expressive gestures and there is little animation in facial expression or vocal inflection
  • Significant weight loss or weight gain
  • Extreme appetite change, either constant hunger or no appetite at all

Mental markers of depression may include: 

  • Feeling hopeless 
  • Feeling worthless
  • Feeling like a burden to others
  • Believing that life isn’t worth living 
  • Having persistent thoughts about suicide or death

Physical symptoms of anxiety may include:

  • Pain, pressure or heaviness in the chest
  • Muscle tension
  • Sweating, shaking and other fight or flight responses
  • Accelerated heart and breathing rate
  • Bowel issues like irritable bowel syndrome

Mental symptoms of anxiety can include:

  • Continuously thinking about a problem or situation 
  • Feeling the desire to escape a situation 
  • Worrying about either the present or future
  • Having persistent thoughts of death 

Other Differences Between Depression and Anxiety

Depression can be experienced in the body as aches and pains, but the real digestive issues tend to go with anxiety. With anxiety, your body is preparing for an emergency because your mind is anticipating something bad will happen. Your body diverts blood supply and energy to muscles that will help you fight off an attack or run from a threat. Other bodily functions like digestion are left without the energy they need to continue until after the threat is mitigated.

Depression brings about a general slowing of all physical functioning. Little energy is made available for movement, even the movement of small facial muscles that display expression. An appetite increase can be a self-soothing technique. Some people learn to comfort themselves with food, although it’s only a temporarily comforting result.

Another feature that is common in depression is a feeling of worthlessness or preoccupation self-blame or guilt. In anxiety, there is an expectation that something bad is going to happen. Anxiety is mostly worrying about something that has not happened yet. Depression is a sadness about the current state of affairs or rumination about past events. People who are depressed usually do not worry about the future because they generally gave up hope that things will change for the better.

Similarities Between Anxiety and Depression

With depression being more of a low-energy state compared to anxiety, which tends to be a high-energy state, it can be difficult to believe that they share things in common.

While there are notable differences, there are also many similarities between generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder. 

Here are a few of the most common:

Symptomatic Overlap 

In general, depression will tend to suppress mood, while anxiety will heighten some emotions and responses. Even with this being the case, both GAD and MDD can share many of the same symptoms. 

Individuals with both types of mental illnesses can experience:

  • Sleep disturbances like difficulty falling asleep.
  • Chronic fatigue.
  • Difficulty concentrating or focusing on something for long periods.
  • Psychomotor agitation, like being restless or agitated for no obvious reason.

Commonly Rooted in Trauma 

Experiencing some type of trauma, like neglect or abuse, can lead to mental health conditions. Especially when the trauma occurs during childhood, it increases the chances of one developing conditions like MDD and GAD later on. This phenomenon occurs because trauma impacts areas of the brain responsible for development.

Hereditary Risk Factors

If someone has a close family member, like a parent or grandparent, who has either depression or anxiety, they will be at an increased risk of developing these mental health conditions as well. There are some hereditary risk factors involved with both depression and anxiety. 

These mental health conditions can be caused by shared genetic factors. Because depression and anxiety are often comorbidities, it’s possible that if a close family member has one, an individual could develop both.

Chronic Physical Pain

Even though MDD and GAD are mental health conditions, individuals who suffer from them could experience a range of physical symptoms as well. Chronic pain can be caused by muscle tension, which can also facilitate chronic aches.

Chronic pain and tension can show up in various areas of the body, specifically the neck and back. 

Risk for Developing Substance Use Disorders

When individuals with either depression or anxiety don’t know how to manage their mood or symptoms, they can turn to substances like alcohol or drugs. Self-medicating their symptoms can lead to dependency or a substance use disorder. Substance use is a common occurrence with both mental health conditions. 

Types of Treatments for Anxiety and Depression

No matter the cause of the symptoms you are experiencing, several types of treatments are available for anxiety and depression. Treatments can be designed for the individual conditions or both together. Many people find relief from symptoms of both disorders by practicing mindfulness or meditation techniques. Both of these methods promote relaxation, which can help calm anxious thoughts and feelings. 

Exercise is another great way to help alleviate symptoms of anxiety or depression. Whenever you engage in physical activity, whether it be walking or running in your neighborhood or biking at a local park, your body starts to release endorphins, or “feel-good” chemicals. This endorphin release also helps with boosting your mood and quality of life.

However, when symptoms of anxiety and depression start to get in the way of day-to-day functioning at school or at work, professional treatment in higher levels of care settings can make all the difference. Intensive outpatient treatment or our Day Program can be effective in helping an individual learn additional skills to cope and build new routines and healthy habits with high levels of support. Hillside’s Virtual Intensive Outpatient Program or Intensive In-Home Therapy can be great options for clients who need intensive support without the hassle of commuting to treatment, while the Experience DBT Day Program can offer an intensive therapeutic reset for teens ages 13-17 through rigorous clinical programming while still living at home with their families.

If the symptoms becomes so severe and involves high risk and life threatening behaviors, residential treatment may be the answer. With this treatment, patients will live 24/7 on campus in a supervised and structured therapeutic setting. This setup allows them to fully immerse themselves in their program and receive the support needed to manage symptoms.

At Hillside®, our residential program offers a specialized treatment protocol for individuals mainly ages 11-17. Our multidisciplinary team works with each patient individually to come up with the best treatment approach and modality. These techniques can include: 

  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).
  • Psychiatric medication management. 
  • Individual therapy. 
  • Family therapy. 
  • Group therapy.
  • Theraplay®.
  • Radically-Opened DBT (RO-DBT).

We also offer therapeutic groups ranging from horticulture therapy to Interpersonal Skills groups to equip patients with the care and support they need to stay engaged and heal during treatment.

Learn About Our Treatment Center in Georgia 

Hillside is the leading residential treatment facility in Georgia and an expert at treating depression and anxiety. 

Whether you receive a diagnosis of depression or anxiety — or both — healing and hope are possible here at Hillside. Children and families will have access to the treatments needed to experience a life worth living. 

Contact Hillside today to provide a child, teen or young adult you love with effective treatment options for anxiety, depression or another mental illness.


  • Gaan Akers, LPC, NCC

    Director of Clinical Education & Outreach - Gaan has been working with children, adolescents, and families for over 10 years in various settings. In her current role, she provides education and training for mental health professionals, parents, and the community. She lives in Atlanta with her husband. In her free time, she enjoys reading, hiking, climbing, and cooking. She is a donut aficionado and a national park enthusiast!

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